More support needed for young people affected by domestic abuse

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More child-orientated supports should be made available for young people affected by domestic abuse, according to the government-appointed rapporteur on child law, while laws should change to include social media when discussing 'communication' in domestic violence cases.

Prof Geoffrey Shannon's latest report makes a raft of recommendations across a range of legal areas, but stresses that children should be protected in cases where domestic violence takes place.

According to the recommendations in the report, which has already been viewed by Cabinet: "Child-specific services should be made available for children who have been exposed to domestic violence. In particular, such supports should include the provision of counselling for these children.

"The Domestic Violence Act 2018 represents a positive step towards protecting victims of domestic violence – which necessarily includes children. Efforts should be made to ensure it is commenced as soon as possible, subject to certain amendments to further strengthen its remit."

It also said: "A broad definition of 'communicating (including by electronic means)' should be included in the 2018 Act, clarifying that it includes phone calls, text messages and emails; communication through social media sites, including Facebook and Instagram; online messaging services; and mobile phone applications such as “Whatsapp” and “Snapchat”.

Children, having regard to their age and maturity, should be given the power and authority to make applications for protection and safety orders in their own right – without having to rely on a parent or the CFA to make an application on their behalf. Further consideration needs to be given to the exact parameters of out-of-hours orders.

He also said a national system of Child Contact Centres should to be established "to facilitate post-separation contact for victims of domestic abuse, providing qualified staff to supervise access between children and parents within the centre initially, and within the community as progress is made".

In his latest report, Prof Shannon also outlines the need for family law cases to be treated in a distinct and specialised manner, away from other court business.

According to the report: "The clear preferred system emerging from other jurisdictions is a separated Family Law Court system which is not overly interwoven with the rest of the Courts System. What also seems clear is the importance of managing the “type” of case which goes before each tier of the Court.

"The message from other jurisdictions is unequivocal and that is that children and family services in the court are best managed by a dedicated and integrated Family Court structure that is properly resourced to meet the particular needs of people at a vulnerable time in their lives."

The government is obliged to consider the recommendations made in the report, including that: "The new family courts should be located separately from current venues with sufficient rooms for private consultations and a welfare and assessment service to support public and private family law proceedings. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) facilities should be located in the new family law courthouses linked into the welfare system."

The report also refers to the Child Care Act 1991 - "the primary piece of Irish legislation governing the welfare of children who are in need of care and protection" - and how it "requires some updating to ensure that the legal regime in respect of the care of children in this jurisdiction reflects modern society and the changes that Ireland has undergone in recent years".

The report makes a range of recommendations regarding how retrospective allegations of abuse should be dealt with and also argues that only highly experienced solicitors should represent children in highly complex child abuse cases and that all judges and lawyers likely to encounter children's cases should be required to have some level of training on children's right and welfare.

The necessary detail, resources and implementation are needed in order to make plans for a specialised family or children’s court system a reality.

It recommends an amendment to the Act so children can be maintained in voluntary care "so long as his/her welfare appears to require it, but not exceeding a maximum period of 12 months".

As for emergency care orders, "It is recommended that this provision should be extended to allow the court to make an order preventing a parent of a child in respect of whom an order under the section has been made from attending (or causing anyone else to attend) at or near the school or crèche of the child the subject matter of the proceedings or the foster parent’s address pending the determination of the application by the court. Such an order would only be made where required having regard to the specific circumstances of each case and only where it is anticipated that such an order would be necessary and in the best interests of the child.

"Such a subsection would facilitate the child remaining in care locally and continuing to attend his or her school, Montessori or crèche, thereby ensuring the least disruption to the child for the duration of the emergency care order."

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